Reclaim Chicago North Chapter - Racial Capitalism workshop

Racial Capitalism: Discussing the History and Impact on Racial Inequality, presented by Reclaim Chicago North Chapter

Workshop groups discuss the night’s topic

The Reclaim Chicago North Chapter held its November meeting at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square. This month’s meeting titled, Racial Capitalism Workshop, was presented by leaders from Reclaim and The People’s Lobby. Leaders provided examples of how racial capitalism was evident throughout the nation’s history and conducted discussion groups to further analyze how it became a systemic problem affecting the economics and politics of today.  

Racial capitalism was defined at the meeting as a system where the elite (1%) who are mostly white, gain wealth and power from the exploitation and oppression of poor and working people of all colors (the 99%). The system intentionally pits poor and working people against each other highlighting their differences instead of shared interests, preventing them from building power together.

Andre Vasquez introduces the night’s topic

Andre Vasquez introduced the topic of racial capitalism: “This topic is difficult to approach for most people. I’d like to think of Reclaim as a safe space, where we can come together from a place of honesty and a willingness to learn. We all have a story and suffer from shared oppression. Once we realize this and talk openly to one another, we can unite and fight this together.”

Vasquez shared his stories about his parents who were first kept apart due to racial intolerance, and by a chance of fate, reunited later in life and started a family. He talked about his father carrying the heavy burden of providing for himself from as early as age 10. “That level of oppression cascades down generations. This is the desired result of the system; oppression makes us feel that we shouldn’t have power,” said Vasquez. “We have to remember this is an intentional system with the desired result of keeping us from uniting, and those who benefit from the system would like to keep it that way.”

Ryan Keating, who organized the workshop activity for the meeting, explained why this topic and many of the issues discussed at Reclaim meetings are important to him. He described his experience dealing with anxiety resulting from his parent’s divorce and how divorce affected his family. “We all have personal struggles and it helps to talk about and reflect on those struggles when reaching out to others. We also have to remember that many of the topics we discuss have many layers and affect us all in different ways. We have to always be respectful of that,” said Keating.

Ryan Keating, researcher and organizer of the night’s event

Keating then described the workshop activity for the night’s task of delving into the history of racial capitalism in the country by examining three significant time periods, the agricultural age of the 1600’s, the industrialized age of the 1900’s, and the rise of neoliberalism in the later 1900’s. After leaders provided brief descriptions of each of these time periods, they asked the workshop groups to determine how the white ruling class of each time period used the tools of racial capitalism to win over the white working class in response to certain events. They also facilitated discussion on how people of color were treated as a result. Leaders defined the tools as falling into one of three categories, material benefits, political rights, or ideological messages. Answers were then shared and discussed with the entire group.

Racial Capitalism and the Agricultural Age of the 1600’s

The first round was led by Veronica Arreola who provided the historical backdrop for the 1600’s. In the South, the labor on the large plantations was performed by a combination of white indentured servants and African servants who were stolen from their homeland. At this time, both groups were treated mostly the same. They were provided freedom after serving out contracts or agreeing to their children converting to Christianity. Both groups were subject to the same violence and exploitation. This went on for decades until the multi-racial uprising of the Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. Africans and white servants joined with small farmers in Virginia to rise against the governor of Virginia. This sign of multi-racial solidarity among the poor scared the white landowners who then realized they needed to win over a section of the white working class to be allied with them.

The Bacon’s Rebellion provided the context for which the workshop groups were asked which of the three tools were used by the white landowners to win over the white workers at this time. The groups provided the answers which included economic benefits such as land grants, better paid jobs, racially restricted membership in the skilled trades, and political benefits such as freedom from servitude and the right to vote.

The groups then discussed how the benefits afforded the white workers sharply contrasted with what people of color experienced following the Bacon’s Rebellion. Land was stolen from Native people by force as well as through false treaties, disease, and swindles. The ruling class had invented “whiteness” and “racial slavery” to break up solidarity along racial lines. “Racial slavery” made African servants slaves for life and their servitude hereditary. It became part of the nation’s culture that to be black meant to be a slave in the United States.

In summary, the white ruling class at the time created a system of racial capitalism that provided endless upward mobility for whites and a racialized sense of shared identity. White men were awarded with access to land and skilled trades, and even the poorer white men were provided with basic democratic rights and social privileges. By excluding these same benefits from people of color, they reinforced a radically inequitable distribution of wealth and an ideological message of a democracy that works only for white men.

Racial Capitalism and the Industrialized Age of the 1900’s

Presenter Michael Sawyer addresses the crowd

Michael Sawyer led the next discussion on the industrialized age of the 1900’s and how racial capitalism affected the multi-racial working class of the time. This period was marked by a move from an agricultural to industrial based economy and an increase in European immigration to the United States. Both these factors came together to create a new working class in the nation. The European immigrant worker and the black worker took the place of the white skilled laborer who was no longer deemed relevant to an industrialized age. Factory owners took advantage of this new working class degrading them with harsh working conditions and low wages. As resentment grew towards the factory owners, these groups joined together to form a powerful multi-racial union movement that used radical tactics and halted production to make their voices heard. The factory owners set out to destroy the unions and realized they had to get a faction of this new workforce on their side to accomplish their goal. They chose to entice the European immigrant worker by affording them the benefits that were once only provided to whites.  

The workshops groups were then asked to identify three of the tools, either material benefits, political rights, or ideological messages, that the white owning class gave to the white working class to win them over as a response to the multi-racial union movement. The tools identified included economic and political benefits such as union jobs with high wages and good benefits; access to home ownership and a college education; citizenship and voting rights; and a social safety net.

This analysis was followed by group discussions on the impact on people of color during this period. They faced segregation and exclusion from the benefits afforded the white working class. As more and more whites benefited from the results of a booming economy and moved to the suburbs, people of color were resigned to segregation affecting all aspects of their life, including where they lived, what schools they attended, and their social activities.

In summary, the period began with an emerging industrial economy that was based on the exploitation of European immigrant workers and black workers who were considered racially inferior. To put an end to the development of a multi-racial working class movement, the industrial capitalists enticed European immigrants with benefits that in the past were only provided to whites. This “whiteness” came with a package of economic and political benefits that excluded Black, Latino, and Asian workers. Once again, the path of upward mobility was laid out for white people, resulting in an end to the multi-racial solidarity of the union movement. Racial capitalism during this period bolstered the ongoing inequities in the distribution of wealth in the United States.

Radical Capitalism and the Rise of Neoliberalism

The next period, the neoliberal era, was introduced by Jessica Creery. Social movements along with a changing economy brought about a new backlash by the white establishment against not only marginalized groups, but also against the white industrialized working class. As the success of the Civil Rights movement encouraged other movements by women and the LGBT community to take form, the white establishment became increasingly nervous of losing power. In addition, the capitalist owners of this period saw an opportunity to boost profits at the expense of the American worker.

During this time, the unions were a powerful force in the economy, standing for better wages and working conditions for the American worker. When the recession of the 1970’s hit, this gave the capitalists of the time a new incentive to crack down on the unions. They moved their production overseas to save on operating costs and labor which led to the shutting down of factories at home. The white industrialized worker was faced with the same job eliminations as the white skilled worker of the previous age. The capitalist owners, by eliminating the need for the industrial worker, accomplished their goal of dismantling the power of the unions.

In the early 1980’s, a neoliberal economic agenda was put in place which included massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations, a reduction in government regulations especially on high finance, an emphasis on globalization, the crushing of trade unions, and a weakening of the social safety net. The laissez-faire economic approach adopted in this period led to companies making record profits, while wages stagnated for the first time in United States history, putting the nation on the path of great income inequality.

The lack of regulation and financial carelessness of this era led the country to great economic crisis, so the questions addressed to the workshop groups was, How did the white ruling class at the time build political support for an economic agenda that hurt so many social groups? What took the place of the promises of upward mobility and material benefits the white ruling class once offered the white worker? Simply stated, the ruling class pushed a conservative social agenda. Starting with the Reagan era, the power elite developed a strategy of bridging the interests of a range of socially conservative constituencies in opposition to what was labeled the “liberal agenda”. The strategy was aimed at fundamentalist Christians, the white working class, gun advocates, and anti-government libertarians. The Reagan era marked the beginning of this strategy, but it is still used by the Republican Party today to appeal to its base.

Jessica Creery leads a workshop group

Creey also made clear in her presentation that although neoliberalism began in the Reagan era, it was not exclusive to the Republican Party. The Democrats also supported a neoliberal economic agenda, but they appealed to different social groups, the multi-racial professional class and the multi-racial working class. They appealed to these groups by pushing a social agenda which emphasized liberties like marriage equality and equal pay for equal work, yet sacrificed collective rights like unionization and the rights that imply economic redistribution to the poor. Ironically, the social groups of the poor, people of color, and the middle class who made up the Democratic base were the most hurt by neoliberal policies.

Donna Ray concluded the night’s workshops and asked  the crowd the question, How does racial capitalism affect our local community? Answers included gerrymandering, which divides the voting community along racial and economic lines, and media and political collusion that often drowns out the voice of those without power and influence.

“We have to talk to one another, so that we know we are not suffering alone. Talk to your neighbors, your local officials, the important thing is to just keep talking about the issues that affect you and your community,” said Ray.

The Reclaim Chicago North Chapter holds monthly meetings to discuss timely issues and develop plans to address these issues on a local level. These meetings are usually held on the last Wednesday of each month.

Thanks to Ryan Keating who provided the research for this event which was used in this recap

The following links provide current information on how income inequality affects the nation as a whole, and especially people of color. As seen here, in the multitude of studies and reports on the subject, the consensus is that there is an urgent need to address this problem in the United States and throughout the world.




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